With increasing emphasis on developing academic skills at younger and younger ages, the role of pretend play has become blurred. Is it worth it to sacrifice playtime so that your child can learn letters and numbers? Has play become a thing of the past?
The truth is that your child needs play in order to learn. Research shows a link between play and the development of cognitive and social skills she needs in order to learn more complex concepts as she gets older. For example, play is linked to growth in memory, self-regulation (self control), oral language, and symbol recognition. Play has also been linked to increased literacy skills and other academic capabilities.
Play is especially beneficial when it reaches a certain degree of sophistication. Productive play, which has the potential to foster many areas of social and cognitive development, has the following characteristics:
Your child creates a pretend scenario by negotiating and talking with his peers and using props in a symbolic way (using one object as a substitute for something else). For example, if he's playing house he uses a block and pretends it is a phone. If he's playing spaceship, he makes an astronaut costume out of a big coat and a pair of his dad's boots.
- Your child creates specific roles — and rules — for pretend behavior and she adopts multiple themes and roles. Good, old-fashioned pretend play — with an empty box or simple rag doll — provides something very important to later growth and development.
When your child plays make-believe, she learns to delay gratification and to prioritize her goals and actions. She also learns to consider the perspectives and needs of other people, to regulate her behavior, and to act in a deliberate, intentional way.
Playing with Partners
When kids play together, they need to provide extensive and detailed explanations to keep the play going. Without this language skill, it is hard for children to follow the series of transformations that happen to a paper plate, for example, when it's used as a steering wheel in a car, then as a pizza in a restaurant, and finally as a cake at a birthday party.
Your child does not need to use that much language when playing with adults because he expects us (and rightly so) to be able to read his mind — so why bother! Nor does this kind of expression happen when he plays with "smart toys" with pre-programmed responses. On the other hand, when he's with other children, he must be very specific about who is doing what, how the props are being used, and what will happen next. Teachers will tell you that rich vocabulary and advanced writing skills are developed by constantly using new words in varied and meaningful conversations.
We need to provide opportunities for children to interact with their peers and the support that will let make-believe play flourish. Most primary school teachers would probably agree that they don't expect kindergartners to enter first grade with a complete mastery of spelling or addition. After all, children learn these academic competencies in the early elementary grades. However, teachers do hope that the children who come into their classrooms can concentrate, pay attention, and be responsible and considerate of others. Kids develop these skills through interacting with peers during old-fashioned pretend play.